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Language Befuddlement in Wonderland

sweetp's picture


          Lewis Carroll’s novels Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There present an alternative reality.  Characters carry themselves through a fantasy world where there are no realistic consequences, usually inanimate objects move and talk, and the odd and bizarre is normal.  In this world, most people and things are unconventional; so it would be natural then, wouldn’t it, that the function of language is unusual as well?  For the behavior of language in this novel is quite curious: words seem to mean the opposite things from the standard understandings of terminology, as there also appear to be numerous mistakes in terms.  What’s more, a particularly strange instance occurs: in this book, animals act like people!  Come along, then, for an exploration of the wordscape of Alice’s story.

            To illustrate this claim of opposite meanings to words and phrases, look to page 92, where the Duchess is steadily confusing Alice with her differing “morals” of things.  The Duchess finds a moral in every story and event that happens in her life: after Alice makes an observation that the croquet game they are playing is going well, the Duchess declares: “‘’Tis so…and the moral of that is—‘Oh, ‘tis love, that makes the world go round!’’” (for example).  Following the duchess’ statement, Alice thinks of one of the Duchess’ earlier proposed morals, and says, “‘Somebody said…that [making the world go round is] done by everyone minding their own business!’”  To that, the Duchess replies, “‘Ah, well!  It means much the same thing….” However, we as rational readers can see that the two stated ways of making the world go round, ‘love’ and ‘minding our own business’, actually have drastically differing meanings. One is about sharing emotion with another, while the other is about keeping to oneself. And so, the two morals are most certainly not ‘much the same thing.’

            Another instance of tricky meaning is exhibited by something said again by the Duchess.  After proposing yet another one-line moral on page 93, she goes on to say, “’or, if you’d like to put it more simply,’” before declaring a far more complicated version of her previously stated idea.  What the duchess says here (‘more simply’) and what she goes on to demonstrate with her longer moral (more complicated) are two opposing terms.  Three more examples of mixed up words-and-meanings come up in the next few pages.  One shows up on page 104, when Alice discovers that the shoe polisher whose name she knows at home to be ‘blacking’ is called ‘whiting’ in Wonderland.  Contrasting colors are literal opposites, in shade and tone.  One looks further to page 129, where the King of Hearts deems Alice’s words ‘very important’ after hearing her unimportant testimony at the Knave of hearts’ trial. The White Rabbit quickly corrects him when he says, “’Unimportant, your Majesty means, of course.’”  The King swiftly fixes his word-blunder, but the fact that the terminology confusion is there in the first place is intriguing: the King mixes up two opposite words.  Lastly, in Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, Alice gives her kitten a kiss, a seemingly positive gesture, “to make it understand that it was in disgrace,” a negative state to be in.  Here, the cat’s predicament and its punishment don’t correlate, and in fact are opposite; seeing this, the reader comes to wonder about Lewis Carroll’s handling of language in the Alice books.

            The next language oddity that shall be investigated is the apparent mistaking of terms present in the text.  Both words that are spelled the same but commonly mean different things, and words that sound the same when spoken but have different spellings and meanings, are confused.  Dry (meaning not wet) and dry (meaning uninteresting) are muddled up, tail and tale are used interchangeably, and lesson and lessen are mistaken in the text.  A word mistake appears differently when Alice is talking with a pigeon, and declares that little girls “‘eat eggs just as much as serpents do.”  The pigeon goes on to state that “…if they do, why, then they’re a kind of serpent….” Here, the pigeon cannot differentiate between little girls and serpents just because of the simple coincidence that they both eat eggs. We can look beyond that similarity as rational humans, and know that little girls do not equal serpents.  The pigeon’s confounded characterization is yet another example in the case of mistaken terms. Another instance of a similar kind of confusion is found on page 142, where Alice calls the image in a mirror the Looking-glass House.  Alice mistakes the reflection of her room shown in the mirror for an entirely separate house inside the glass. An example of another sort of word mix-up can be found on page 105, when the Mock turtle is talking to Alice: “’Why, if a fish came to me, and told me he was going a journey, I should say, ‘With what porpoise?’’  ‘Don’t you mean ‘purpose’?’ said Alice.”  Alice catches this mistake, and we readers also notice the error.  This language confusion adds to the overall sense of the curious conduct of words that one observes while reading the Alice stories. 

            Speaking of mistaken terms, there are lots of creatures that talk and act like humans but have animal names (you’ve already heard of two in this essay). On page 57, the sight of a fish dressed as a footman confuses Alice, as does the very frog-like footman following him.  The reader wonders along with Alice: why are these animals called people if they are clearly not of the human species?  Terms are again misplaced in this instance.  On page 71, a hare and a dormouse speak and drink tea like people.  Furthermore, they are treated as such by the Mad Hatter, a viable, if insane, human.  The reader’s sense of reality is again challenged: why is this person dealing with animals as humans, and not acting the least bit perplexed?  The terms of animal and person are confused in this novel: in the text, illustrations and in the eyes of other human characters.     

            As the observant reader can see, words have a tendency to act in unexpected and surprising ways in this text.  Opposites are called the same; terms are mistaken or misplaced; animals masquerade as humans (or is it the other way around?)  The reason for the confusion that this word-play creates is understood, however, when the thoughtful reader investigates the life of Lewis Carroll.  When she does this, she sees that the language commotion present in the Alice books connects to a sense of bewilderment in the author’s life: that is, his thoughts regarding the new theories in his subject of work. You see, Lewis Carroll (whose real name was Charles Dodgson) was a mathematics professor at Oxford.  He created a puzzling wonderland to reflect the perplexing new theories emerging in mathematics at the time of its creation, the mid-19th century.  In his Alice books, he pokes fun at the advances in his field that he thought were ridiculous.

            And so, with that revelation about Carroll’s life at the time of Alice’s writing, the disorder is explained.  The persistent reader can understand Carroll’s reasoning behind creating such bafflement in these stories, even if she can never truly understand the mixed-up logic that exists in wonderland.




Anne Dalke's picture

Befuddlement all the way down?


It was fun to see you trace all these "befuddlements" (fine word, that!) of language in Wonderland: these tumbles of puns and mistaken synonyms, of nonsensical claims. Where I draw the line, though (!) is where you conclude, with certainty, that such mix-ups and mash-ups are simply, and clearly, Carroll's "poking fun at the advances in his field," mathematics, "that he thought were ridiculous." My first question is why -- if what he objected to was new-ways-of-thinking-about-numbers -- would he have used word confusions? My second is -- if his text shows how mixed-up reasoning to "purposes" ("porpoises"?) can be -- can you be so sure that you've understood the reasoning behind the word befuddlements? My third query is about the reasoning that connects what you observe (one word used for another) with your explanation (Carroll's unhappiness w/ new math). What makes those two things effect-and-cause, rather than simple corollaries? What's the evidence for your claim?

See Lisa Belkin's 2002 New York Times Magazine essay,  "Coincidence in an Age of Conspiracy," or "The Odds of That,” for a tutorial in our tendency to find patterns, and explanations, where there (most probably) are none ... and then let's go back to Wonderland for another tutorial. I'll pose you a counter-claim: that the mixing up of words in Wonderland points to something about language usage among those of us you call "rational" (and observant, and persistent) readers; see, for instance, my  essay on Where Words Arise, And Wherefore for an exploration of puns and etymologies--our "rational," "observant," "persistent" attempts to construct logics and histories where there are more likely just...randomnesses.

Mightn't it be that Carroll is suggesting in his novel what I play w/ in my essay: that our persistent MIS-understandings are what keep us communicating -- and learning from one another?

(p.s.: here's another image, to nudge you towards trying to communicate also in this mode!)